In late October last year a survey by Nick Rose (@Nick_J_Rose) appeared on my Twitter feed, looking at the divisions in educational philosophy and pedagogical opinions that exist amongst teachers. When the results emerged soon after, they revealed a fascinatingly fractured profession, divided along lines of gender, rank and (especially) school type. Dichotomies between ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ ideas (false or otherwise) were alive and kicking, especially between primary and secondary schools, raising some extremely important questions about how we manage the transition between these two sectors with sometimes fundamentally opposed approaches to education. If you haven’t seen them, Nick’s four blog posts picking his results apart in forensic detail are highly recommended and can be read here.
Suitably inspired, I decided to do something very similar for an issue that I have been wondering about for a couple of years; to investigate the relationship between teachers and educational research. It is a platitude, but worth saying anyway, that teachers are always alert for ways to improve their practice and provision. The prevalence of ‘neuromyths’ and other pseudoscientific beliefs amongst teachers is often rightly cited as a worrying development, but it does at least illustrate the strong appetite for ‘empirical’ information which could help them to do their job more successfully. But where teachers actually turn for this empirical information is often not clear, for example selection and appraisal of academic research is entirely absent on most teacher training courses. My worry is that this creates a vacuum of demand without supply, and that into this vacuum the opportunistic and lightweight is sucked in before the rigorous and heavy.
My rough working hypotheses at the outset (based on my experience) were:
- Teachers would be generally in favour of using academic research to improve practice.
- Despite this, they would actually do so less than might be expected given (1)
- Teachers would find summaries of academic research easier to build into to their practice than the research papers themselves.
The survey went ‘live’ on 11th November, with the last completion on 4th January. The sampling involved appeals on social networks but also (mainly due to my paltry Twitter following) personal emails to contacts in schools. Whether this more direct approach led to a more representative sample of teachers than a Twitter-only survey is an open question. I know that a good range of schools were contacted and distributed the survey on their email lists (or otherwise semi-publicised it, in line with hilariously complicated ‘information management’ policies), but not how many people from each centre completed it. Demographic data was not collected in the survey in the interests of keeping the length down. Regardless of the type of school, it is probably a very unrepresentative teacher who takes time out of their day to fill in a survey, so I can’t claim that the results represent the teaching population at large.
A total of 223 teachers completed the survey, for whose time I am hugely grateful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I was a secondary school teacher, so were the majority of my contacts and so, subsequently, were most of the respondents (Primary = 26, Secondary = 191, Sixth Form/FE college = 2, University, HE = 4).
The limited numbers from sectors other than secondary make it difficult to draw any firm conclusions regarding differences between the groups. This should be borne in mind for some of the graphs below.
Are teachers interested in reading research?
Respondents were asked “Do you think that teachers should have opportunities to read educational research?” and responded using a ten point rating scale where 10 = “yes, regularly” and 1 = “never”.
The mean ratings for all three sectors were pretty consistent, leading me to collapse the groups when looking at the overall distribution of responses:
I was expecting that the overall response to this question would be positive, but perhaps with some polarisation of responses towards the lower end of the scale.
The results here exceeded my expectations in terms of the positive skew in the distribution. Clearly it seems that the majority of respondents feel very positively towards the idea that teachers should have opportunities to read educational research. From this we can draw the perhaps obvious, but useful, initial conclusion that teachers are not anti-research by and large.
The wording of this question was carefully chosen. I was worried that simply asking “Do you think that teachers should read educational research?” would lead to responses being confounded by worries about workload and other daily concerns. Asking about “opportunities” to read research allowed the distinction to be drawn between teachers’ theoretical opinions, and their day-to-day practice (which was assessed in the next question).
How often do teachers read educational research?
Q 2. asked “How often do you tend to read a piece of educational research?” (with subsequent clarification making it clear that this was referring to original research articles, rather than summaries or digests) and Q 4. “How often do you tend to read summaries or digests of educational research?” The summaries question was included in recognition of the fact that there are ways to engage with research results other than having to slog through each original article yourself. Websites such as the EEF or EBTN provide accessible research summaries, as well as tips on how best to incorporate them into lessons. I was interested to see if these options were popular alternatives to the ‘real thing’.
Again it’s worth pointing out here that the small numbers in the ‘6th form/FE/HE’ group especially mean that we should not draw any major conclusions from differences between the groups. It would not surprise me if the ‘6th form/FE/HE’ did score more highly on a larger scale survey here, as their daily practice might actually bring them into contact with research articles more frequently (my own reading of Educational Psychology articles only really started when I had to teach it!) Otherwise, it is interesting to note the increase in the frequency of reading summaries compared to reading the research papers themselves. Collapsing the school types into one group and just comparing responses to the ‘research articles’ question with the ‘summaries’ question, the difference between the two was significant (Research: M=2.78, SD= 1.25; Summaries: M=3.45, SD=1.31; t=5.552, p=<0.0001), suggesting that teachers read research summaries more often than the papers themselves. The histograms below (with all school types amalgamated) also help to illustrate this difference.
Although the distributions are relatively similar, it seems much more common for teachers to have regular (weekly) contact with research summaries than with the papers themselves. This seems to be where the difference between the groups revealed by the t-test is primarily found. Despite this difference, for both histograms fewer than half the respondents fell into the top two categories of ‘weekly’ or ‘monthly’, meaning that the majority of the sample are accessing research every few months or less.
One final piece of analysis was to see whether it is the same people who give high ratings in both categories:
Perhaps some people read lots of research papers and research summaries and other people don’t read anything.
Interestingly, although there is a positive correlation between the two questions (correlation coefficient r = .488, r2 = .2377), it is not extremely strong, so there is clearly some variation here within the sample, with some people regularly reading one medium but not the other. From this data it’s not clear whether this is due to availability or preference.
So, are teachers interested in reading research?
Yes… in theory!
It seems fairly clear from the data above that teachers are interested in academic research, and alive to the potential for using it in their own practice. However, this positivity towards reading research in principle is not completely reflected in practice, with over half of the sample reading a research paper or summary only every few months or less. These findings do seem to support my initial hypotheses 1 and 2.
So what are the barriers which are preventing good intentions becoming reality? The most obvious one is probably time. It is a very unusual school (though I have heard of them) which provides allocated time for its staff to engage with research on teaching and education. More commonly, it is a ‘desirable extra’ for which no actual provision is made. This is a ridiculous situation, making engagement with empirical data about how to do the job better a somewhat niche and onerous add-on.
However, there are other possibilities which might help to explain the gap between intention and practice, besides school timetabling and priorities. The next post will look at two possible explanations for why this might be, focusing on the content of the academic literature itself.